“When something unexpectedly good comes from what would otherwise be considered a mishap.”¹
A characteristic of art practice is the possibility that the unexpected will be incorporated into it. Artists make connections and use their work to explore the world and not to just display it or their skill in representing it. In this way what we’re all doing is researching. That sounds daunting, but shouldn’t be. Using drawing to better understand the shape of a jug or building and how marks and media can be brought to bear on their representation is research. This isn’t exclusive to art of course.
I want argue for the importance of recognising ‘happy accidents’ in any research activity. I think we can split them into two types: those that exist ‘outside’ the work, and this ‘inside’ or within the work. Let me explain using examples from science:
Outside: We’ve all heard the stories of Isaac Newton being hit on the head by an apple or Archimedes leaping from a bath shouting ‘Eureka’. The first anecdote was the spur to Newton working on a theory of gravity. An accident caused him to catch a glimpse of something important. Granted, he then had to go and do the work, but that apple was an important spur to that research. The Archimedes story is a bit different as had been charged with a problem and was having trouble solving it (read more here), but as he lowered himself into a bath he suddenly realised the solution. This is perhaps less accidental, but it shows how being sensitive to the world, even when not working, can be useful.
Inside: 3M in 1968 developed a low-tack pressure sensitive glue while trying to make a super-sticky glue. Within the company it was called ‘a solution without a problem’, until someone used it to make the Post It note. The glue was a side-effect of ongoing research (like the discovery of Penicillin, which was also accidental). Sometimes our work generates stuff that isn’t what we were after, but that might be useful anyway.
My principle point is that it’s important to keep your eyes peeled when going about your daily life as there might be useful stuff happening under your nose. You noticed it. If a cat walks across your paper when you’re doing a mark-making exercise, or you spill red wine on the same sheet, don’t jump to think of them as mistakes. the red wine incident could make you think of pouring ink and moving it around by tipping paper, or blowing it. Does sponging the wine off make a mark you could use? That sort of thing.
It’s also worth going back through old work. Look for things that you missed or didn’t carry forward. As you learn you should be changing the way you look at the world. Perhaps that mark-making exercise you did at the beginning of Drawing 1 has some potential that you overlooked at the time.
Neither of these kind of accident do the work for you, but if you do spot and exploit them they’re almost bound to bring something original to your work, precisely because you didn’t think of it. That’s one place that ‘creativity’ hides.
¹Urban Dictionary Definition of Happy Accident.
Image Credit: Dorothy Flint, Book Design 1 student.